Circumscribing Knowledge: Paper Trials and Men of Learning in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Circumscribing Knowledge: Paper Trials and Men of Learning in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Paper trials were a European-wide phenomenon in the eighteenth century. Born of the experimental culture that informed the “new sciences,” paper trials were conducted by and for the men of learning that occupied the closely guarded confines of contemporary scientific societies. As a general rule, these men had one of two goals in mind when it came to paper trials: determining what methods and materials had been used by European and non-European civilizations for making paper in the past; or finding ways to improve upon paper production in the future. Some of the experiments that they oversaw were destructive in that they involved cutting up paper samples in order to fit them under the telling lens of a microscope, or burning them in the hope that such actions would yield further information about their method of manufacture. Most, however, were constructive in that they resulted in paper made from a variety of materials other than the linen rags that had served as the key ingredient of European paper manufacturers since the thirteenth century and were now reputed to be in short supply. The Regensburg naturalist, pastor, and publisher Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718–1790) conducted more than seventy paper trials on over fifty different materials over a period of seven years (1764–1771). He even had a miniature paper mill built to his specifications and set up in his house so that he could supervise the production of the resulting paper samples directly. Using Schäffer’s experiments as my main example, I explore the many tensions that were brought to the surface by paper trials, as men of learning sought to take charge of a practice that had been in the hands of craftspeople for hundreds of years on the grounds that only certain kinds of men were capable of making “useful knowledge.”